Paris can be divisive: many people love it, but there are also those that leave it feeling disappointed. It often gets cited on lists of places which are ‘overrated’. And, in fact, a small number of people have been so disappointed by the French capital that they succumb to what has been called ‘Paris syndrome’: an extreme form of culture shock when faced with Paris not living up to their expectations.
Now, the chances of developing Paris Syndrome are very small, but having unrealistic expectations of a place is fairly common. So if you’re visiting Paris, how can you avoid disappointment? In this blog, I’ll share five things you can to do set appropriate expectations for Paris.
What Is Paris Syndrome?
Paris Syndrome is the name given to a phenomenon observed in a tiny minority of visitors to Paris whose experience is very different to what they expected or are used to. It is viewed as an extreme form of culture shock and has manifested itself as a number of psychiatric and psychosomatic symptoms including delusional states, hallucinations, feelings of persecution, derealization, depersonalization, anxiety, dizziness, tachycardia, sweating, and vomiting.
The term was first coined by a Japanese psychiatrist working in Paris, Hiroaki Ota, in the 1980s and the condition has been mainly associated with Japanese tourists. However, people from other nations have been known to suffer from it also.
“Fragile travellers can lose their bearings. When the idea they have of the country meets the reality of what they discover it can provoke a crisis,” psychologist Hervé Benhamou is reported to have said.
In 2006, Miyuki Kusama, of the Japanese embassy in Paris, told The Guardian, “There are around 20 cases a year of the syndrome and it has been happening for several years”.
Why Do People Get So Disappointed By Paris?
Now, obviously, only a very small number of people have such an extreme reaction to Paris to be classed as ‘Paris Syndrome’, but it is not uncommon for people to be disappointed with their experience in the city.
I first got wind of this when reading discussions on social media about ‘most overrated places’, and Paris comes up fairly often. This surprised me because I loved Paris on my first visit and on every visit since – and I personally did know anyone else who didn’t also love Paris.
So I created a poll on my Twitter account to see how my followers felt about Paris and why.
The results showed that more people were delighted than were disappointed, and yet at the same time, only 55% were delighted – 45% said they felt either ‘meh’ or disappointed. This in itself was evidence that Paris is polarising, but the comments also helped me understand why.
Comments revealed that the image of Paris as super glamourous and romantic sets too high an expectation – and this leads to a sense of disappointment. So this got me thinking about all the ways that you can adjust your expectations to avoid disappointment in Paris (and in the most extreme cases, to avoid Paris Syndrome).
How To Avoid Paris Syndrome
1. Understand Paris is not always glamourous – it can also be gritty and dirty
There’s plenty of media that presents Paris as a stylish and glamorous place, with elegant women sashaying around in haute couture. Think Chanel No.5 perfume ads, The Devil Wears Prada and even, more recently, Emily In Paris.
And it is true to an extent. There are, of course, glamourous places and glamourous people in Paris. I guess Paris Fashion week is somewhere to feel in touch with the pinnacle of Parisian style – I don’t know, I have never been. Some of the most stylish places I’ve been in Paris include staying in a luxury Paris hotel and having dinner at some high-end restaurants, including L’Oiseau Blanc in The Peninsula hotel.
However, that certainly won’t be what you experience all around the city. As well as high-end glamour, there are also ugly buildings, run-down streets and lots of ordinary people in regular clothes.
In fact, one of the common complaints I’ve heard about Paris is that it is dirty, with dog poo everywhere. At first, this didn’t ring true – because I hadn’t noticed that myself. Perhaps my eyes were always on the lovely buildings and landmarks, rather than the pavement. But on a recent visit, I spent some time exploring Montmartre, and sure enough, I noticed a lot of dog poo around!
For me personally, this didn’t spoil my experience. I certainly didn’t love it – it’s gross! But in the end, I loved everything else so much more that I was willing to overlook (and step over) the occasional poop.
But certainly, in general, I would urge you to check your expectations about the level of glitz and glamour you’ll experience throughout Paris.
In a nutshell: Paris is not a Chanel ad.
2. Understand Paris Is Not Always Romantic – It Can Also Be Busy And Noisy
Paris is the City of Love, right? So many romantic stories involve a meet-cute or a proposal in Paris. Amelie (2001) and Moulin Rouge! (2001) come to mind…
And how easy is it to conjure up the idea of falling in love in Paris? An electrifying gaze across the table of a café… walking hand in hand down cobbled streets, accordion music playing somewhere… kissing at the top of the Eiffel Tower… These ideas are embedded in our cultural concept of Paris.
Paris can certainly be a romantic place. On the first Valentine’s day I spent with my now-husband, he took me to Paris and we did some of those romantic things and it was truly wonderful.
But while it is true that Paris can be romantic, it isn’t the whole truth…
The whole truth is that Paris has cute cobbled streets to wander down with your lover, but is also a busy city full of cars and people and noise. Paris is a busy metropolis! 2 million people live and work in the city of Paris (10 million in the greater metropolitan area) – and few of them are invested in your romance. So be prepared for traffic jams and noisy people at night – and all the non-romantic things you’d expect in any major city. It’s not all wicker café terraces and accordion music.
Oh, and take it from me: it can be very cold at the top of the Eiffel tower in mid-February, so you might want to make that kiss a quick one.
In a nutshell: Paris is not a romance movie
3. Understand Paris Is Big And Attractions Are Spread Out
Movies like Before Sunset and Midnight in Paris feature a Paris that is effortlessly walkable – and it’s true to an extent. I love walking around Paris, including the Gothic quarter, the Left bank and Montmartre. Within an arrondissement or area, it’s very pleasant to walk around Paris.
However, Paris is a big city, and its attractions are spread out around the city. For example, Sacré-Cœur is 4.5km from the Arc de Triomphe and the Eiffel Tower is 4.7km from the Cathedral of Notre Dame. If you wanted to walk between all the places I recommend in my Paris in one-day itinerary, it would take you 4 hours and 15 minutes – just for the walking!
And of course, if you want to explore some of the non-central Paris attractions such as the Palace of Versailles or La Défense, these are definitely trips you need to find transportation for.
If you want to see all the major destinations in Paris, you will not be able to walk between them all – unless you have plenty of time, energy and some seriously comfy shoes. Most likely you will need to jump on a bus, in the Metro or in a taxi at least a couple of times. And good news, the Citymapper app is useful for navigating public transport in Paris.
In a nutshell: Paris is not a quaint little town
4. Understand Paris Is Busy – And Often Thronging With Tourists
Maybe you imagine arriving in Paris and strolling around the Louvre, maybe popping up the Eiffel Tower. That’s fine – you can do all those things, but now imagine them all with queues. Long queues.
Paris is popular! 35 million people visit Paris each year and through the peak season from June to August, there can be a lot of demand for the major attractions in the city. This leads to large crowds and long queues. Queues for the Eiffel tower can take up to 2 hours at peak times. Hell, even in Paris in winter, there are queues for popular places!
And don’t believe all the blogs about ‘hidden gems’ in Paris: many of them are also very popular and crowded with people.
You can minimise waiting times bub visiting Paris outside of the peak season, and by booking tickets for the beginning or end of the day. But overall, you should expect to have to book timed entry tickets in advance and even then to queue, because many others will have done the same, and many sites have security checks before you can go in.
In a nutshell: you’ll be sharing Paris with millions!
5. Understand Wait Staff May Not All Be Polite In The Way You’re Used To (But They Won’t All Be Rude Either)
There’s a stereotype that exists about Paris waiters which purports that they are often rude and dismissive. If you’ve watched Emily in Paris, you’ve seen this stereotype played out with cringe-worthy arrogance, in a scene where Emily decides to teach a waiter that isn’t responding how she’d like that the customer is always right (luckily we don’t see how this plays out because she’s distracted by a man she finds attractive).
I think this stereotype is unfair. I’ve had great service in Paris for years and only one experience of a waiter being rude. In that instance, I was struggling to order in French and ended up using some English words. The waiter (it was a bartender, actually), who didn’t speak English, got exasperated and walked off in a huff. It certainly felt rude at that moment – but it didn’t take me long to reflect that I was speaking a foreign language to this guy. Maybe he could have handled it with more grace, but it wasn’t his fault I didn’t pay attention in French class!
However, I do think that service ‘norms’ can vary from country to country and if you’re used to a very service-oriented culture or one with very specific expectations of politeness, then it might be you’re disappointed by not experiencing that in Paris.
For example, whenever I’ve visited the US, I’ve been struck by the super-friendly and attentive service in restaurants. I think there is a higher value placed on service there than where I live in the UK, for example – and no doubt the culture of paying service staff via tips is a huge part of that. I haven’t been to Japan, but I’m led to believe that there is value placed on very polished and polite service there, which may not be met everywhere else in the world. In essence, if you’re used to a particular style of service, you may not find it in everywhere you go in Paris (or anywhere else in the world, for that matter).
I’m sure that service in high-end Paris restaurants will be acceptable to anyone’s taste, but the overall culture of service around the city could be different to what you’re used to.
In a nutshell: service isn’t the same all over the world (and that’s OK)
In Summary: How To Avoid Paris Syndrome
Overall, I think the key to avoiding Paris Syndrome, and disappointment with Paris in general, is to adjust your expectations. It has glamour and romance, yes, definitely. But is also a big bustling city with some dirt, noise and lots and lots of tourists.
I personally don’t mind the putting up with some of Paris’s downsides – I take the rough with the smooth. But then again, I love big cities in general, so I am generally happy to put up with some noise and grime.
Give Paris a chance!
Now, in trying to set realistic expectations, I hope I’ve not gone so far as to put you off Paris. I genuinely love it and have been coming back over and over for 25 years.
If you’re considering a first visit to Paris or thinking about giving it another chance, read my other Paris articles, including: